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Fresh vs. fake: Choosing the right Christmas tree

Piney-sweet smell, or perfect branches every year? See how the West is changing the way we make that decision

  • Thomas Harman, of Balsam Hill, brings you some of the finest artificial trees in the West

    Fake Christmas tree producer

    Jonathan Sprague

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WHO'S BEHIND YOUR FAKE TREE

Thomas Harman, founder/CEO, Balsam Hill, Redwood City, CA

  • What he makes: High-end artificial trees using a combination of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene (PE), a softer plastic used in grocery bags.
  • Why: About 10 years ago, artificial trees “looked like shredded paper on a stick,” says Harman, then an industrial wire manufacturer. So he made molds out of actual Norway spruce branches, formed his tree using multiple plastics, and hand-painted each branch for a more realistic look. In 2006, the first Balsam Hill model sold for $799, was a quantum leap forward in realism, and helped lead an artificial tree boom. Today, Balsam Hill still uses real-tree cast molds and multiple color shading, and has some models that sell for less than $500.
  • How he spends Black Friday: At the office, manning the phone. “Thanksgiving weekend is kind of like our Super Bowl,” he says. “We spend our entire year getting ready, then hire about 100 extra employees to help with the orders.”
  • His customers: Primarily baby-boomer women who host large family gatherings. “Having a perfect tree up in late November takes a little pressure off someone who loves to be the perfect host,” says Harman.
  • The future of artificial trees: Given the cost of its trees, Balsam Hill isn’t a market leader, but it is a trendsetter. Recently the company has developed new varieties to solve interior conundrums, like the Sonoma Slim Pencil Tree, a 9-foot tree with a 28-inch waist, or the Fifth Avenue Flatback, a vertically bisected tree that, when set against the wall, gives the illusion of a full tree in half the space.

SHOULD YOU CHOOSE FAKE?

  • Price tag: 7 1/2-foot artificial trees range anywhere from $99 to $1,000+, depending on quality. This one starts at $999, pre-strung with clear lights.
  • Longevity: Companies often give a 2- to 3-year warranty. Higher-end trees may have a warranty as long as 10 years. On average, artificial trees wear out after about 6 years.
  • Convenience: Many artificial trees are available online and are delivered to your door within as little as 2 to 3 business days. Big-box stores carry them, too, in a variety of tree species, shapes, colors, and even pre-lit versions.
  • Care and storage: Directions for assembly vary in difficulty and type. Some have branches that need to be inserted into the trunk; others have hinged limbs already attached to the trunk. There are no fallen needles to clean, the structure is flame-retardant, and you never have to water it. For many, the biggest issue is finding storage space.
  • Eco factor: The cardboard box can be recycled easily; PVC plastic cannot. Because of the way these trees are constructed, they almost always end up in the landfill. In terms of climate-change impact, researchers have found that you’d have to use your artificial tree for at least 20 years before it becomes a better option than a real tree.
  • BOTTOM LINE: If you prize convenience and no-mess holidays, it’s hard to beat an artificial tree.

TIPS FOR SELECTING YOUR TREE

A Balsam Hill artificial Noble fir, molded from a real tree and made with PE and PVC plastics, is a popular choice. Cheaper fake trees may be made of PVC alone, aluminum, or optic fibers. Here's what to look out for.

  • On high-end models like this one, the needles have texture. Roll them between your fingers and you’ll feel ridges.
  • Simpler under­branches help fill out the tree.
  • Another high-end touch: Needles mimic natural gradations in color, painted dark green and then fading to a lighter shade.

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